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Game-Show Contestant Takes a Spin at Politics

After winning on 'Wheel,' student runs for governor

September 27, 2003|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

Daniel Watts will soon know which was a more rewarding experience: winning $11,300 on "Wheel of Fortune" or running for governor of California.

After all, they're both impressive feats for a 21-year-old college student.

On one hand, Watts now has enough award money stashed away to make it unnecessary for him to take a dreaded job at the mall.

On the other, the UC San Diego junior could do something about his increasing tuition -- perhaps pressure prominent gubernatorial candidates to address the fee hikes that have hit students across the state.

"That would be a best-case scenario," said Watts, who used $1,516.67 of his May game-show winnings to pay the fee to file as a Green Party candidate.

As if the recall election wasn't novel enough, Watts and a handful of other under-30 gubernatorial hopefuls add the novelty of youth.

For Watts, that meant targeting his age group with his one-issue platform of lowering student fees, having a best friend from high school manage his campaign, and persuading everyone he could think of -- from kindergarten classmates to his 102-year-old grandmother -- to register as Green Party members so they could sign his ballot petition.

"I think young candidates can certainly electrify an electorate," said Adam Anthony, project director of Campaign for Young Voters, an organization that encourages candidates to consider young people a valuable voter base.

"What's more important is the authenticity a young person can bring," he said. "A 20-year-old has 20 years of advertising thrown at them. They have very good insincerity detectors."

Watts faced 45 people armed with such detectors recently in a classroom at West Valley College, not far from his south San Jose home. He looked like just another student, his bony body hidden by baggy jeans, a loose T-shirt and Nike sneakers of the non-flashy variety.

After saying what everyone already knew -- "I'm not going to win" -- Watts broke into an unrehearsed spiel.

"Your constituency is not to be taken advantage of." The reason most politicians don't care, he said, "is, statistically, students don't vote. They're raising your fees because you don't vote."

Whether it's because they are jaded or ignored, the 18-to-24 crowd has indeed been quieter than other voter age groups. While they make up 13% of those old enough to vote, they accounted for 8% of the voter turnout in the 2000 federal elections.

Desiree Welke, 18, said she had never heard of Watts but would vote for him because she had been told that morning that her fees had been increased from $11 to $18 a unit, as they have been for all community colleges.

"I thought I had saved enough money," Welke said.

So did Watts. Now he thinks he'll have to take out a loan to pay the extra $1,100 a year.

In the University of California and California State University systems, fees were boosted by 30% this summer, following hikes of at least 10% over the winter. Chalk up another one for the state budget crisis.

After Watts handed out voter registration forms, the teacher, Bill Whitney, took a quick poll. How many favored the recall, he asked.

Everyone raised a hand. How many for Cruz Bustamante? None. Peter Camejo? One hand. Arnold Schwarzenegger? Up went five hands, mainly belonging to muscular young men in the back. And Watts? A dozen hands shot up.

Whitney congratulated Watts and donated $9 to his campaign, the biggest cash contribution to date for the political science major. "The fact that this gentleman is sticking his neck out is very courageous," Whitney told his class.

Getting swooped up in the "Wheel of Fortune" Wheelmobile, which recruits college students to be contestants on the show, on campus earlier this year was fun. But who says running for governor can't be a blast?

When a buddy recently asked him what he was up to, Watts said, "I'm doing this governor thing."

"Sweet!" his friend replied.

So far, Watts has met dozens of other candidates during a campaign appearance on an aircraft carrier. He also met Georgy Russell, the 26-year-old candidate who piqued interest by using thong underwear as a campaign marketing device. Watts has appeared in regional newspapers and on television several times, including on a Chinese-language station that grilled him on Chinese-U.S. relations.

"I love being on TV," said Watts, a die-hard Nintendo fan who's more in the "Legend of Zelda" mold than, say, "Tecmo Bowl."

A computer company sent him a free digital camera to record his campaign, and he has received stacks of mail, some asking for his autograph. The Gun Owners of America wrote to ask where he stood on firearms issues. But Watts doesn't stand anywhere on anything but student fees. That's the beauty of being a one-issue candidate, he said.

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